Interview with The Western Online
How did The Western Online come about?
Matt: One of the things I've noticed while trying to find a place to submit my own Western stories is that there aren't very many zines or publications that publish Western fiction. I'd been toying with the idea of creating my own Western site for about a year before I mentioned it to my uncle, Mike Pizzolato. With his encouragement and assistance, I decided to go ahead with it. The site would not be possible for me to do alone; not only does my uncle design the artwork for the site, he helps read submissions as well.
Mike: My nephew Matthew was starting a web site for Western writing. He asked me to be the site's art director, and it sounded like a great idea for both of us. I have a bachelor's degree in art, and I love making art, while Matthew loves writing. He is an avid writer and has been published online and in magazines, so I think it is a great thing for him to see publishing from the editor's side of the fence at thewesternonline.com.
How would you define the term Western?
Matt: It is a struggle of good versus evil and of exploration, but mostly I feel that the term Western represents freedom. The more common traditional Western is set in the 19th century after the Civil War, but I think that any story that deals with the early settling of America and western expansion of America can be categorized as a Western because at one point, New York and Pennsylvania were the frontier. Westerns can contain elements of other genres, such as horror elements like a ghost story, but must not be set any later than around 1900.
Mike: I am more a fan of Western art, history, movies and TV shows than novels, and I hope this visual influence is a plus for me as the site's art director. To me, a Western is typically set in the mid to late 19th century and can be represented in many media, even a Western painting with a narrative behind it. Artists during that time period portrayed the many changes of the time, along with various art movements. Photography was changing both art and history. The age was filled with new advances in science, and the war had created medical advances, as wars always do. The art of the time was in a constant state of change. To me, a Western-whether a painting, an image, a film, short story or novel-is a powerful conflict with characters who are real to the reader. It is set during the time of Manifest Destiny when Americans moved westward into unsettled land. This movement West is itself a powerful setting for intense, violent conflict which makes for potent storytelling.
Westerns seem to have an endless appeal in various forms of media and popular culture(films, books, video games, etc.). What is it about Westerns that captures the imagination of so many people?
Matt: I think its something that is deeply physiological. The days of the American West were the last great expansion of humanity. The globe was conquered when the West was settled. There is nothing left for mankind to explore except space and that's not readily available for the average person. When most people think of the Old West, it is with a bit of nostalgia. The idea of freedom has a lot to do with the draw that Westerns have on people because in today's complicated society, there is no such thing as true freedom; people are bound to their jobs and mortgages because bills have to be paid. There is nothing more free than the idea of climbing onto a horse and riding off into the sunset.
Mike: Sadly, I think the Western has lost a lot of appeal in recent times, and I don't know why. Maybe there are more art forms competing with it, or maybe society has changed a lot. When I was a kid and television was in its infancy, TV shows like Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Maverick, Bonanza, The Lawman, Rawhide, Wyatt Earp and many others were all over the television dial, and that's when there were only three major networks. Actors like John Wayne in the movies, as well as James Arness and Clint Eastwood in television brought the strong male hero and the Old West to life for me in a very visual way that kids don't have today. Nowadays, there is not a single Western on TV, and I can barely recall the last Western movie that came out. When I was a boy, we kids would don our cowboy hats and toy guns, get on our stick horses and play "Cowboys and Indians." Today you have "strong women" characters in fiction and "diversity" in every media nook and cranny out there, for good or for bad, so that the idea of a strong male protagonist is, to some degree, almost an affront to that. Therefore, I think the appeal of the Western is far from endless, and the bright flame of its heyday is barely a dim flicker now.
For those of us who will always find the Western appealing, it is likely because of the vast potential for unique conflicts and storytelling. Conflicts in a Western can be between two gunfighters or between the town drunk and his own inner battle with his bottle of whiskey. The ever-present threat of explosive excitement in Westerns is always there, regardless of the type of conflict. And while it is true that most Western tales are fiction, they are rooted in American history and the powerful personalities of actual men who tamed the West, men like Joseph McCoy who built Abilene from the ground up and extended the Chisholm Trail northward, cattle barons like Goodnight and McCall who pushed drives on that trail from Texas to Abilene, lawmen like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Wild Bill Hickok, and even outlaws like Billy the Kid and John Wesley Hardin. The Western serves to bring these great personalities to life again.
What changes/if any have you seen within the last decade when it comes to Western fiction? Where do you see this genre in five years?
Matt: The Western genre has faded from prominence in recent years, although every once in a while you'll see a decent movie, such as Tombstone or Unforgiven of the early '90's or more recently, Open Range. But beyond the occasional movie, there's not much happening on the Western front. I have noticed that Westerns have evolved somewhat, from the traditional Western to the Space Western. A lot of science fiction stories now days are simply Westerns with the settings changed, and all sorts of Western sub-genres have popped up lately. The traditional Western will always remain, although not as popular as it was in the past, but in the future I think there will be more and more of the blending of genres.
Mike: I have seen movies that promise to revive the Western, and even though they were good movies, the Western has basically evaporated from the visual media landscape of TV and movies. I think the Western is gone for good from most media, so that the last refuge for the genre now is a small niche in the publishing industry, both in books and in online published work in an era when fewer people read and most people watch their TV screens. This may explain the hunger for our web site, thewesternonline.com. I recall my nephew telling me how few and far between were sites where a Western writer could publish his work, so I am happy to be a part of that, but I don't foresee the Western becoming a burgeoning industry in any medium in the near future.
What is your favorite Western? Why?
Matt: The Outlaw Josey Wales. It is an accurate portrayal of the Civil War era that doesn't cast the Confederacy in a negative light and it doesn't portray Native American's as "ignorant savages", which was against Hollywood tradition. It is a great story with strong characters that are very well developed and dynamic. It contains elements of several different forms of the Western rolled into one epic story; the classic revenge plot, as well as Wales internal struggle about a very serious issue, yet also has the comedic relief of Lone Watie played by Chief Dan George. The film is deeply embedded in American culture and many of Eastwood's lines have become common expressions. "Are you going to pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?"
Mike: My favorite Western is any Gunsmoke episode. The show was on television for 20 years, longer than any TV show in history, not just because it was a Western in the heyday of Westerns, but because every episode was about a character, a person you felt was real. Not all of the episodes were shoot-em-ups, and many were in-depth character studies that rival some of the best mainstream literature our there. I remember an episode about the "world's heavyweight boxing champion" of the time period who came through Dodge City, played by the affable, barrel-chested Alan Hale who was later the skipper on Gilligan's Island. In another episode, Festus was caught between a rock and a hard place when one of his dear old friends, a black man, was being tracked by the law for murder and by his own trail boss whose feelings of love and respect for the man rivaled those of Festus. Festus found himself in quite a thorny inner conflict. And though Matt Dillon was fictional, you have to believe he was an idealized composite of the many historical characters like Wyatt Earp who upheld the law on the frontier.
What do you look for in a good western story?
Matt: I think that characters drive any good Western. Western's are after all, about people and the struggle to survive in a harsh environment; and of course conflict, whether the struggle is a character's internal struggle or a struggle against man or nature. I prefer well developed stories that have a beginning, middle and end and that change the main character is some profound way, for better or worse.
Mike: I look for real characters and a detail of environment that creates in me a nostalgia for the Old West. A skillfully told Western will take me on an adventure and surprise me, either by an unusual conflict or a surprise ending. The story will move me in some way, stir my sense admiration for a strong main character or my empathy for a weak but no less determined minor character. I think The Searchers with John Wayne was the best Western ever because of the many conflicts buried underneath the main conflict. John Wayne's character, who had fought in the Apache wars, was unlike any character he had ever played before, and he generally played the same character in every movie until that one. He was fighting the Indians to retrieve his kidnapped niece, but throughout the film, he was also having to fight himself and his own obsessive hatred of the Indians. The story's big question in the end was whether he would hate or reject his own niece if she had, as he feared, become one of the Indians.
What do readers of The Western Online have to look forward to in the months ahead?
Matt: We update the site on an ongoing basis with short stories and articles, and I'm always trying to add new gadgets to make the site more interactive for readers. In the near future, we are going to be listing several different interactive polls to garner reader feedback. We have a thread in our forums for readers to make any comments or suggestions and I would love to hear what our readers would like to see.
Mike: I am working on on a painting right now which will be used as the site's banner. Hopefully there are some artists out there who may want to make submissions to thewesternonline.com, so we can post some fan art or even some cowboy poetry. We've talked about some kind of art competition among the readers. I may want to write a column or two about the art history of the era and maybe relate it to the people events of the Old West.
Matthew Pizzolato --- In addition to being the editor and webmaster of The Western Online, Matthew maintains his own website and writes a weekly NASCAR column for Insider Racing News. He is a contributing writer for Suite101.com, having written over 40 nonfiction articles for that site. His short stories have been published online and in print in publications such as: The Copperfield Review, The Storyteller, The Pink Chameleon Online, Perpetual Magazine, Long Story Short.
Mike Pizzolato --- Mike is a very accomplished and prolific artist and as a result is very well suited to be in charge of the Art Department of The Western Online. He earned a Bachelor's Degree in Art and Journalism from Louisiana State University - Shreveport. He also works as a sportswriter for the Shreveport Times. To see examples of some of his artwork, visit his art blog.
To learn more about The Western Online, please visit: http://www.thewesternonline.com/about.ht